Melanin is what determines the color of your eyes, hair, and skin. The more melanin your body has, the darker these features. The less you have, the lighter.
Melanin-rich skin protects against the ravages of the sun, including harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays that age skin and cause cancer. It also shields your skin from blue light that produces free radicals deep in the dermis layer. Those create DNA-damaging stress that break down collagen and elastin.
This all sounds like great news if you have melanin-rich skin. Your risk of premature aging and skin cancer seem to be significantly less than your blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned friends. While that may be true, your skin tone may lead to hyperpigmentation, a condition that affects people of all skin colors.
Hyperpigmentation is caused by sun exposure, hormones, or trauma to the skin. Melasma produces brown, tan, grayish, or blue-gray patches of skin or spots similar to freckles. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, caused by surgical procedures, acne, eczema, or allergies, causes flat brown, tan, or black marks.
Although dark patches don’t pose a danger to your health, they may cause cosmetic issues you would rather not have. Hyperpigmentation may go away on its own. But if it doesn’t, or you don’t want to wait for spots to disappear, there are solutions for reducing their appearance. Here are four you might want to explore.
1. Topical Creams and Gels
There are many over the counter potions that claim to reduce the appearance of dark spots. Maybe they work and maybe they don’t. But there are creams and gels available by prescription that back their claims with science.
The key to effective melasma treatment is getting the right combination of medications in the right doses. Hydroquinone cream, for example, has demonstrated remarkable results. But it’s usually only prescribed for six months or less, due to potential side effects with long-term use. Those include skin irritation, inflammation, and allergic contact dermatitis.
Azelaic acid gel is often prescribed in the interim between uses of hydroquinone cream. Then, there’s vitamin A-derived tretinoin cream that treats melasma, acne, wrinkles, and rough skin. It lightens skin by getting rid of old sun-damaged skin and replacing it with new cells.
Although these solutions require a prescription, they offer an affordable way to deal with hyperpigmentation. Even better, research shows that they work. That means you aren’t taking a shot in the dark in treating your dark spots.
2. Chemical Peels
There are OTC acids designed to exfoliate old skin, which could reduce the signs of dark spots. However, a product with too much acid can do more harm than good. That’s why you might want to leave this task to a healthcare professional.
Chemical peels use acid to remove the top layer of your skin. At higher amounts, the acid can work into the dermis, the middle layer, which might yield better results. What you need will depend on the nature of your hyperpigmentation.
If you think chemical peels sound aggressive, you aren’t alone. They can be an effective way to treat hyperpigmentation, but they also come with some ominous potential side effects. In addition to the expected redness and irritation, chemical peels can cause allergic reactions, scarring, blisters, and infection.
Chemical peels will leave your skin more sensitive to the sun, which could cause more hyperpigmentation, not less. Talk to your dermatologist to find out whether you’re a good candidate for this procedure. If you have it done, bulk up on the sunscreen to keep from backsliding on any improvement to your skin.
3. Laser Therapy
Skin resurfacing and intensive pulse light therapy are two types of laser therapy used to treat hyperpigmentation. Skin resurfacing is done with an ablative laser designed to remove skin layers. IPL uses a weaker, non-ablative laser to target collagen growth in the dermis layer of the skin.
Melasma is believed to be both a pigment problem caused by melanin production and a vascular problem. That means it is related to blood vessels in the skin. And there is evidence that laser therapy provides an effective way to treat melasma’s vascular component.
Laser therapy is used to treat post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation as well, although its use seems counterintuitive. That’s because lasers can cause inflammation by increasing free radicals. Providers who recommend this treatment should test a small spot for reaction before diving in.
Laser therapy is often used if topical creams and chemical peels fail. So, you might want to give those a try before you explore your options for laser therapy. You just want to make sure you won’t make the problem worse, not better.
4. Micro-Needling and Microdermabrasion
These procedures both begin with “micro,” and they’re designed to improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation. However, they are quite different. One uses tiny needles to go deep into the skin while the other exfoliates the top layer.
Micro-needling requires a topical numbing ointment before beginning. Then, a roller with needles or a device that pokes needles into the skin is used. It can improve the appearance and texture of skin without the risk of discoloring it. This makes micro-needling a beneficial procedure for those with darker skin tones.
Microdermabrasion employs a device with a wire brush or other abrasive attachment that removes the top layer of skin. Dermabrasion moves past the top layer of skin, down into the surface of the dermis. Both remove scars, dark spots, and signs of sun damage.
Dermabrasion can lead to more hyperpigmentation, although usually temporary. Micro-needling may cause scarring, bruising, and infection. These procedures are more invasive than others but could give your skin the fresh start you’re looking for.
Spot-Free Beauty Is Only Skin Deep
For all the extra protection melanin-rich skin can provide, it has a downside as well. Hyperpigmentation leaves its mark on your skin. But fortunately, there are ways to reduce those spots and freckles.
Consult a healthcare provider about a skin regimen that could work for you. And be willing to change it up until you find your best solution. You know that true beauty is not merely skin deep. But spot-free skin may be.